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The Vatican Sayings of Epicurus

I'm Sam. I have a serious interest in practical philosophy and related topics- mostly Epicureanism, stoicism, skepticism, and rationalism.

Bust of Epicurus

Bust of Epicurus

The Wisdom of Epicurus

Although Epicurus must have spoken many wise sayings during his lifetime, only a sparse selection survives. These survive within two works: The Principal Doctrines, quoted by the later philosopher Diogenes Laertius, and The Vatican Sayings. These short collections give us insight into the key teachings of Epicurus and what it means to be an Epicurean. In this article, you’ll learn all about what the Vatican Sayings are, read selected highlights, and get a sense of what they mean within Epicurean philosophy.

About the Vatican Sayings

Epicurus was a Greek philosopher, not a Roman one, so why are his quotes referred to as the “Vatican Sayings?” In fact, the sayings were not named after where Epicurus wrote them, but where they were discovered. In 1888, a scholar found a fourteenth-century manuscript in the Vatican Library. This manuscript contains the only copy of this group of Epicurus’s sayings. The fourteenth-century manuscript may have pulled the sayings together from multiple sources or may have copied an earlier manuscript. In any case, none of the intervening classical or medieval sources survive. And until the end of the nineteenth century, no one knew this group of Epicurean sayings.

The Vatican Sayings is a collection of 81 different maxims written by both Epicurus and his followers. There is some overlap between the Vatican Sayings and the Principal Doctrines. It is best to view the Vatican Sayings as a collection pieced together by those interested in Epicureanism, rather than a single work.

The translations below, which are thematically organized, come from the Society of Friends of Epicurus and Peter Saint-Andre’s translation.

On Friendship

Friendship was extremely important to Epicurus. He believed that it was a good in itself that could provide unlimited pleasure. Friendship also provided practical benefits, such as mutual security and pleasant society. Epicurus advocated treating your friends extremely well, helping to ease their suffering, and even being willing to die for them. In his lifetime, he built a close social network of friends in his school, and his letters show the deep significance of these friendships throughout his life.

  • 23. Every friendship is an excellence in itself, even though it begins in mutual advantage.
  • 34. We do not so much need the assistance of our friends as we do the confidence of their assistance in need.
  • 39. A friend is not one who is constantly seeking some benefit, nor one who never connects friendship with utility, for the former trades kindness for compensation, while the latter cuts off all hope for the future.
  • 52. Friendship dances around the world, announcing to each of us that we must awaken to happiness.
  • 61. Most beautiful is the sight of those close to us, when our original contact makes us of one mind or produces a great incitement to this end.
  • 66. We show our feeling for our friends’ suffering, not with laments, but with thoughtful concern.
"The School of Athens" fresco is thought to feature Epicurus among its firmament of philosophers.

"The School of Athens" fresco is thought to feature Epicurus among its firmament of philosophers.

On Dangerous Desires

Epicurean philosophy advocates seeking out pleasures, but that doesn’t mean pursuing a greedy, indulgent lifestyle. Instead, pleasures should be wholesome and balanced. Epicurus believed that excess did not actually lead to happiness but to a lack of fulfillment. Likewise, worldly desires for power and money could never be fully satisfied and so were to be avoided. Having just enough should provide an Epicurean with the right level of sustainable pleasure.

  • 35. Don’t spoil what you have by desiring what you don’t have; but remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.
  • 46. Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm.
  • 53. We must envy no one; for the good do not deserve envy and as for the bad, the more they prosper, the more they ruin it for themselves.
  • 67. Since the attainment of great wealth can scarcely be accomplished without slavery to crowds or to politicians, a free life cannot obtain much wealth; but such a life already possesses everything in unfailing supply. Should such a life happen to achieve great wealth, this too it can share so as to gain the good will of one’s neighbors.
  • 68. Nothing is enough to someone for whom what is enough is little.
  • 71. Question each of your desires: “What will happen to me if that which this desire seeks is achieved, and what if it is not?”

On Death and Aging

Epicurus believed that by accepting death, people could stop fearing it. He argued that there was no pain or suffering after death, and therefore nothing to be afraid of. The lack of fear of death should enable people to live their lives fully and happily and feel satisfied with their lives when death does arrive. Epicureanism also aimed to provide solace through the difficulties of growing old. Epicurus believed that the happiness of good memories should be a source of pleasure throughout life, even during the illness and pains of old age.

  • 17. It is not the young man who is most happy, but the old man who has lived beautifully, for despite being at his very peak the young man stumbles around as if he were of many minds, whereas the old man has settled into old age as if in a harbor, secure in his gratitude for the good things he was once unsure of.
  • 31. It is possible to provide security against other things, but as far as death is concerned, we men all live in a city without walls.
  • 47. I have anticipated you, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all your secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to you or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well.

Further Reading

  • Crespo, Hiram. “Vatican Sayings – Brief Study Guide.” Society of Friends of Epicurus. November 25, 2018.
  • DeWitt, Norman Wentworth. Epicurus and his Philosophy. University of Minnesota Press, 1954.
  • Geer, Russel. Letters, Principal Doctrines, and Vatican Sayings. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.
  • Inwood, Brad and L. P. Gerson. The Epicurus Reader: Selected Writings and Testomonia. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994.
  • Kenny, Anthony. Ancient Philosophy, A New History of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Rist, John. “Epicurus on Friendship.” Classical Philology 75.2 (1980), 121-129.
  • Saint-Andre, Peter. “Vatican Sayings by Epicurus.” Monadnock Valley Press, 2010.
  • “The Vatican Collection of Sayings.” The Church of Epicurus.

© 2020 Sam Shepards